Not rooting for the underdog is kind of like rooting for the dealer in Blackjack (or the Yankees)—what’s the point? If you love sports movies, you have to love a good underdog story, because that’s what most of them are. That’s not to say the underdog always wins though; in fact, some of the best films on this list feature close-but-no-cigar endings that still manage to uplift your spirits.
But settling in for a sports movie means a few things: 1) you might have to make a few concessions in the actor vs. athlete tradeoff, since it’s hard to be excellent at both, 2) you will be hit with clichés, and 3) you gotta be OK with boxing, because man, there’s a lot of good boxing movies out there.
If taking a chance on watching your local sports team is too big a risk for your two-plus hours of entertainment, fire up one of these flicks and get a guaranteed jolt of athletics-flavored awesomeness. Here’s our list of the 20 best sports movies of all time, in no particular order.
The champ. Rocky may have been made on the cheap ($1 million) and fast (production took only a month), but that seemingly only adds to its appeal. Despite his decades-long career, Sylvester Stallone is at his most believable and lovable here, with Burgess Meredith providing plenty of grit as his trainer, Mickey. Bill Conti’s iconic score still has the power to lift us up today, and the film has the guts to not make the good guy win. And yet you still feel like winner after watching it. Awesome.
It’s easily the definitive film about billiards, and yet The Hustler is so much more than that. With Grade-A performances by Paul Newman as “Fast” Eddie Felson and Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats, the film expertly explores issues of ego, integrity, and personal truths. Director Robert Rossen perfectly captures the atmosphere of the pool hall and the essence of the men who thrive on the game.
Smoothly blending romance and comedy, Bull Durham shines as a witty sports movie that can easily be enjoyed by both sexes. Kevin Costner (who actually hit a pair of homers while the cameras were rolling) brings believable skill to the role of Crash Davis, a veteran catcher who’s trying to show young pitching prodigy Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) the ropes. A great script and terrific performance by Susan Sarandon always make this classic an easy watch.
Based on Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel, though quite different from that book in some places, The Natural is revered as one of the best baseball movies of all time. If you’re looking for gritty realism though, you’ve come to the wrong place, as the film has a distinct fable feel to it, complete with a number of dramatic slow motion shots and over-the-top moments with Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs coming through in the clutch.
Remember the Titans
When T.C. Williams High School is desegregated, Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) is tasked with taking over the school’s football team. Based on a true story, Remember the Titans deals with racism in a lighter way than you might expect (though not if you realize Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney produced the film), but there’s undeniable inspiration to be found here and a great message for younger viewers.
Harold Ramis aced his first crack at directing in this beloved and star-studded (Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Ted Knight) comedy about a local country club. The gopher puppet we could live without, but Caddyshack eagles the rest of the course with gags aplenty, a fun soundtrack, and a forever-lodged-in-our-memories candy bar scene.
Written by a woman (Nancy Dowd), yet flaunting a ton of raunchy comedy and wince-worthy violence, Slap Shot stars Paul Newman as the coach of a sorry minor league hockey team that resorts to brutal on-ice tactics to win games and stir up the hometown crowd. The film achieved cult status long ago, and on the very short list of notable hockey films, this one certainly sits near the top.
Easily the best (fictional) basketball movie on our list, Hoosiers stars an on-point Gene Hackman as the checkered-past coach who looks to guide a small-town Indiana squad to the state finals in 1954. Loosely based on a true story and featuring a memorable performance by Dennis Hooper as the town drunk, Hoosiers shines with its tale of redemption and spirit of the underdog.
There’s some definite controversy about just how much truth made it to the big screen in The Hurricane, but despite those concerns, this tale of a middleweight boxer who gets wrongly convicted of murder packs a strong punch. Denzel Washington is riveting as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as is the real-life story of injustice and what it took to overcome it.
If you need a little inspiration, and don’t mind a couple of clichés along the way, it’s tough to beat Rudy. Before he was pursuing rings with Elijah Wood and after he was in The Goonies, Sean Astin made a name for himself starring as Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a kid with a longshot dream of playing football at Notre Dame. Uplifting and a great underdog story.
Field of Dreams
Only a movie about baseball could allow for such a dreamy fable to work as well as it does in Field of Dreams. The money quote, “If you build it, he will come,” inspires Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) to risk it all and build a diamond on his corn field, and the end result never fails to moisten up the ol’ tear ducts.
One of our three documentaries to make the list, Hoop Dreams meticulously details the lives of two Chicago high school students with aspirations of making the NBA. Following the ups and downs of the film’s real life subjects, Arthur Agee and William Gates, proves to be just as compelling, if not more so, than any fictional story, and the lingering themes of class, race, and education are potent.
Plenty of fast-paced jokes and silly slapstick make Major League the best baseball comedy of all time. Charlie Sheen’s fastball was reportedly clocked at 85 mph at the time of the filming (thanks to his admitted use of steroids for the film), while seeing a relatively unknown Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes and Dennis Haysbert of 24 and Allstate fame as the voodoo practicing Pedro Cerrano only adds to the film’s rewatchability.
Talladega Nights : The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
We imagine some NASCAR fans might despise Talladega Nights, because this hysterical Will Ferrell vehicle takes more than a few shots at the world of auto racing. But no matter, because whether it’s Ricky Bobby running around the track in his underpants or getting stupid with his “shake and bake” buddy Cal (John C. Reilly), nearly every gag works, and that’s good enough for us.
Writer-director Cameron Crowe delivers the goods in this drama-romance-comedy hybrid that focuses on a slick sports agent (Tom Cruise) who has a moral epiphany about his direction in life. There’s Cuba Gooding’s enthusiastic performance as receiver Rod Tidwell and the cute kid in specs, but the bottom line is if your lady is demanding a romcom, Jerry Maguire is just about the best way to get your sports fix while satisfying her needs at the same time.
The Bad News Bears
After recently catching The Bad News Bears, we’ll admit the film has aged with some wrinkles, but we can’t deny the impact this Little League-centric film has had. Walter Matthau perfectly plays the alcoholic manager of a team of misfit kids, and together they begin to iron out each other’s flaws. The film spawned sequels and many other copycat kids’ sports movies, and it seems like the title is still used to describe a crappy team in any sport. Now that’s a lasting legacy.
One of Martin Scorcese’s many masterpieces, Raging Bull hits you like a blunt right hook to the side of the head. This is the film that Robert De Niro famously gained 60 pounds for to portray former middleweight boxing champ Jake LaMotta, and the performance is the stuff of legends. Much of LaMotta’s life was ugly and painful, and it’s all laid out in very raw fashion here in black & white by one of the greatest directors of all time.
Chariots of Fire
Besides that iconic slo-mo running and the unforgettable score, Chariots of Fire is also a heck of an inspirational film. Once again real life is tapped for the plot, as two British runners with different backgrounds vie for Olympic glory. It may be a film about sprinters, but the film certainly has a slow pace that needs a little adjusting to. Once that adjustment is made, it’s easy to sink into the story, especially since it’s mostly unknown actors you’re following.
When We Were Kings
Director: Leon Gast
Purchase: Amazon DVD
The “Rumble in the Jungle,” the legendary 1974 title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, gets covered like a glove in this sterling documentary by director Leon Gast. When We Were Kings hooks you with its phenomenal footage of all the major players in the affair, of course with none shining brighter than “The Greatest.”
Who would’ve thought a movie about on base percentage could be so good? OK, so Moneyball is more than just a deep dive into the world of baseball stats, but for the knowledgeable fan of the game, it’s a surprisingly smart look at how Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) used a new style of player analysis to make the most of a measly big league budget. Having Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) as your screenwriter guarantees snappy dialogue, and Bennett Miller’s direction is also excellent.
The Pride of the Yankees
One of the earliest sports movies is also one of the best. The Pride of the Yankees tells Lou Gehrig’s tragic story with Gary Cooper in the lead role, and it’s worth watching even just for the “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” speech. The love story is poignant, and come on, Babe freaking Ruth is in the damn thing.
You’ll find yourself heavily invested in the story of Ayrton Senna, even if you’re not much into racing, because Senna is that good. The film focuses on the former Formula 1 champion, his compelling life including a cult-like following in Brazil, an intense rivalry with fellow driver Alain Prost, and his tragic death. A superb use of archive footage by Asif Kaspadia.
A coming of age tale about a 19-year-old in Indiana with dreams of joining the Italian cycling team, Breaking Away is firmly in that “feel good” film category. Dennis Christopher is great in the starring role, the supporting cast of Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley is memorable as well, and the uplifting message hits home particularly for young adults who’re looking for their way in life.
Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood directed, co-produced, and even scored Million Dollar Baby, a moving film about an old boxing trainer and a raw, aging female fighter (Hillary Swank) looking for guidance. You’ll either be onboard with the massive plot twist or not in this Best Picture winner, but if you are, you’ll undoubtedly be reaching for the Puffs Plus with aloe.
It’d be hard to mess up the dramatic story of the 1980 US Men’s Hockey team, and fortunately that’s not the case at all with Miracle. Kurt Russell is surprisingly good as Herb Brooks, the coach of the underdog college players who were tasked with taking on the perennially talented Soviet Union team, and even though the Disney formula is evident here, it works as a rousing bit of sports-fueled patriotism.
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